Fashion is not what it used to be. Rewind only 5 or 6 years ago – when we had just passed the peak of the fast fashion explosion. Boohoo had recently gone public, snapping up eCommerce upstarts Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal, adding gasoline to their online growth. Established fashion giants were turning their Fashion Week venues into stage shows, with Chanel displaying its latest collection in a giant airline terminal and Tommy Hilfiger building an entire indoor mini-beach, complete with boardwalk.
Now, this whole model is under intense scrutiny. The whole industry is under a review of conscience, with consumers opening their eyes to the sustainability problem. Last year, Boohoo was battling allegations of modern slavery and now fighting a proposed $100 million class action lawsuit. The fashion industry itself has resolved to change its operational mode, with the declaration of Rewiring Fashion and updating industry practices to suit today’s digital age.
Finally, throw in a global pandemic and a switch to remote working, and even the context for wearing fashion has changed. With no social contact or special occasions, many of us haven’t worn anything that buttons up at the waist for some time, let alone make decisive fashion choices when it comes to buying and wearing ‘an outfit’.
So what does this mean for the future of fashion?
The pandemic has highlighted the reliance of certain industries on face-to-face contact and social occasions. Whilst the more obvious affected industries lie within leisure and hospitality, fashion is still far from unaffected. Even more interesting, the challenge that fashion faces is a combination of two contrasting consumer sentiments. Wear it once—but also—buy less.
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Clothing utilization is on the decrease across the globe. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago and even more so in high-income countries. In a world where we see each other more online than face-to-face, an emerging ‘wear it once’ culture is being bolstered by the rise of style-conscious social media users. Pre-pandemic, stories were rife of Instagram influencers buying items once for an outfit photo, before returning them again..
Take aside the growing pressures of keeping your social media ‘fresh’, it is the months of limited contact that have led us to acknowledge that most of the items in our closet have barely been worn. Whilst trying to break from the monotony of a Zoom-friendly top with sweatpants below, many consumers are also lacking an ‘occasion’ to dress up.
At the same time, people also want to buy less. We know consumer spending has been hit due to COVID-19 but, even pre-pandemic, buying patterns were also moving towards extending the life cycle of clothing. According to Lyst, searches including sustainability related keywords increased 75% year on year. In response, industry giants like H&M have responded with conscious collections, in-store recycling points and even the launch of COS Resell marketplace. However, although these are great initiatives, all of these still encourage a linear model of consumption and a continued purchase in some form.
Is it possible to own more outfits, without creating more?
One of the fashion disruptors aiming to solve that question is By Rotation – a social fashion rental app where users can rent their own luxury clothes and accessories to other fashion lovers.
With a combination of reduced store access and increasing sustainability awareness among consumers, the pandemic has actually increased business for the company, which was founded in 2019 by Eshita Kabra. By Rotation ticks a wealth of boxes for conscious consumers, satisfying both the ‘wear it once’ phenomenon, whilst also giving users a chance to reduce their impact on fashion production, spend less AND earn their own money whilst doing it.
“We’ve created a social network for people to monetize and share their style and wardrobes with each other,” says Kabra. “Our community has thoroughly enjoyed staying connected with us through our marketing channels and they’ve also become far more conscious about sustainable and circular fashion. We’ve seen a rise in user acquisition and listings growth on a shoestring marketing budget.”
With big social engagements and weddings currently on pause, one may wonder if there is a business case for rental outside of occasion-wear but with British consumers spending nearly £800 million on single-use wedding outfits alone, both the cost and conscious element should not be underplayed. At By Rotation, it’s evident there is still a market for outfits, not limited to weddings.
“Given the range of contemporary and designer labels listed by users on the app, many rentals have actually been occurring for smaller occasions such as dinners, birthdays, interviews or even a walk in the park!” says Kabra. The social nature of the app adds an extra level of service to the user experience, with individuals often able to respond to tailored requests, such as sending items on the same day. The online dynamic between users also improves discovery for ‘Rotators’, who often follow and rent from the same person multiple times—essentially a perfect style and size match.
The convenience and personalization elements make a clear case for digital retail and it’s no coincidence that digital-first players were trading 35 percent higher, on average, than they did in December 2019, with locked-down customers turning to digital devices to shop.
It’s not just the services that are shifting towards digital
Renting and sharing clothes is one idea, but what if the clothes don’t exist in real-life at all? Don’t worry, I’m not talking about an Emperor’s New Clothes situation but actually the concept of digital fashion.
Digital fashion is essentially virtual clothing using 3D software to build a true-to-life garment that can be visualized and simulated to look and move like real clothing. Whilst you can’t physically wear it—it currently leans more towards the category of digital art—there appears to be a genuine market for it. In 2019, Forbes reported The Fabricant’s sale of the ‘Iridescence’ dress,which sold for $9,500.
The idea of digital fashion has been around for some time, albeit not at these prices. Notorious for spawning innovation, the gaming industry has been unknowingly seeding virtual fashion demand for a while. From the basics of picking your hair color & style of the infamous Nintendo Wii Mii’s right through to Apple Memoji’s and customizing villagers in Animal Crossing. This has not gone unnoticed in the fashion industry, with an upward trend of fashion brands using gaming and e-sports to market their products through in-game items, skins and wider brand partnerships.
Back in 2019, Louis Vuitton partnered with the long-running multiplayer game League of Legends, which included both a physical clothing capsule collection as well as in-game designer skins. A year later, Valentino, Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui all released in-game outfits in Animal Crossing, whilst Givenchy Beauty and Gillette provided in-game beauty customizations.
After the success of these early steps into digital fashion, a natural evolution would be to expand the end customer to a wider audience and thus DressX, the first international digital fashion multi-brand retailer, went live in 2020. Founded by Daria Shapovalova and Natalia Modenova , the LA-based brand highlights today’s changing purpose of fashion in our lives.
With 60 designers on board and more than 700 items available on the platform, DressX have served thousands of orders, all whilst still only in beta. Similar to By Rotation, it provides a solution to both the ‘wear it once’ culture and the intention to buy less. Customers purchase a digital item and receive a custom image of them wearing it. By purchasing digital fashion, consumers can finally be seen in high-end looks that they otherwise may not have access to, let alone afford. The world of couture fashion normally revolves around a super elite club of less than 5,000 people.
DressX gives both 3D designers and traditional fashion brands a platform to sell and distribute digital clothing, whether it’s existing digital assets or giving physical designs a new digital life and a new revenue opportunity. The design and production processes can take anything from a couple of days to several months depending on the initial idea, designer experience, and the complexity of the items. Not dissimilar to the construction of a designer couture gown, except with far less waste, energy and air miles. No water is used for the creation or usage of digital fashion, and production of a digital garment, on average, leaves 97% less CO2 footprint compared to the production of a physical garment.
The rise of the conscious consumer is certainly something fueling the orders. Modenova says: “For the clients who care about our planet and are striving to decrease the level of pollution created due to overproduction, shopping digital fashion can become a great way to reduce their negative environmental footprint, without giving up the thrill of buying new clothes.”
When it comes to the final product, the digital design method also removes the constraints of both cost and physics. “The possibilities digital fashion brings for creative expression are endless,” says Shapovalova. “Allowing fashion designers to create without any boundaries makes this realm very appealing. Digital fashion is an opportunity to give a second life to clothes which are absolutely unsuited for being worn in our daily lives. While such items could be seen as too bright or expensive for our daily lives in the real world, we can look at the clothes in a completely different way in the digital space.”
Digital fashion is essentially designed to dress our digital selves – which given the pandemic, are now more prominent than ever. It’s no surprise that the majority of DressX customers come from Instagram and other content platforms, like TikTok and Twitter. “We can definitely say that the pandemic made more people grow their online presence and thus made them more prone to using digital fashion for content creation.” says Modenova. “We see more social media influencers getting into the topic of digital fashion. Some of them always used traditional fashion for content creation and decided to make a switch to digital with us, while others are coming from a purely digital perspective aiming to secure a niche as digitally-native influencers.”
The idea of digital-first influencers is certainly not implausible, given that social media has also enabled the the rise of virtual influencers like Miquela Sousa—a.k.a. Lil Miquela—Shudu and Noonoouri who have millions of followers between them, and command big paychecks from brands. (Yes, Lil Miquela is not a real person and earned almost $12 million last year.)
If the industry can digitize human beings, there’s no question that the clothing can’t also be digitized but if it’s just an image, does this mean this product is only for influencers? Modenova makes a clear differentiation about our online and our offline selves, having already become “the avatars of ourselves” across social media channels, digital messaging and streaming services. This is not just limited to content creators, it’s ultimately anyone who’s used a face filter and shared the photos. The global augmented reality market was valued at $12 billion in 2020, with consumers expected to spend over $6 billion on this industry that is still far from achieving its full potential. DressX believe that anyone who shares content regularly, anyone with an online brand whether personal, or professional, can become future customers.
“We already see more specific cohorts emerging,” says Shapovalova. “Digital clothing is especially useful for micro influencers of all kinds—from language coaches to financial advisors, active travelers, tech people—they all see the value in digital assets. Micro influencers share content in their social media at least once a week and for each ‘public appearance’ like this they would need new clothes that could be easily replaced with digital clothes.”
Gone are the days of wearing a beautiful, expensive and impractical item for an occasion. An outfit that is picture-perfect until the sun goes down, or the wind picks up. Shapovalova also identifies an opportunity for selfie-loving travelers and party-goers. “Instead of packing outfits for every special occasion, they can now travel with the most comfortable and practical basics, make pictures in the most incredible place and still elevate their photos with fashionable digital clothes.”
Will no-ownership ever become mainstream?
DressX are certainly seeing traction—so much so that they’re planning to launch a subscription model shortly, with users making multiple purchases for their digital wardrobe. Pricing is a key obstacle that will be critical to tempt users away from a life-time of physical, unethical fashion—both for digital purchases and circular sharing. With competitive price points, the concept of a rotating wardrobe can be an every-day occurrence.
“It’s essential to make our community as socioeconomically inclusive as possible,” says Kabra. “There’s a reason fast fashion has been able to engage and include people of all backgrounds, and I believe low price points have been vital to their strategy. With By Rotation, we want people to realize and embrace the fact that it’s far better to share a higher quality fashion item from someone within our community, as opposed to buying a fast fashion knockoff and/or an item that they will not wear more than 10 times.”
The digital shift is here to stay but, like traditional retailers, there will be post-pandemic behaviors for these disruptors to address. Consumers may not feel the same about sharing clothes, as they do about sharing hotel towels – when they are, in reality, the same.
The biggest challenge for DressX is that there is no ‘playbook’ and no rules for digital fashion. “Being one of the pioneers of the digital fashion movement we have to explore the field from scratch. At the same time, this is also the most exciting challenge. To create something completely new, which never existed before, but only lived in our imagination.”